A sacred fire was lit at Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc (TteS) to commemorate and pray for 215 unknown First Nations children. They were buried in unmarked graves in the orchard, not far from the red brick building, previously known as Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS).
The Firekeepers nurtured the sacred fire for the traditional four days. After the last logs were placed, the Keepers kept ceremonial watch as the embers turned to ash.
Since then, community members and thousands of visitors have come to mourn and weep for the children. For several weeks, traffic wove through, bottlenecking the entry and exit to TteS Band property. Several wooden crosses were erected along the road, along with a pageant of orange articles of children’s clothing. The power of orange and crosses, openly pronounced on unceded, stolen land.
I work at ground zero in the basement of the former residential school, on what used to be the girls’ side of the building. Many of my co-workers are intergenerational survivors of KIRS, who hold stories too grim and triggering to share.
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The ghosts of the past sometimes visit our office — everyone on staff has had a personal experience with these spirit encounters. Whenever one of us gets spooked, a co-worker gently reminds us, just as her mother taught her, to say a small prayer for the little one trying to get home.
I write this cautiously, aware of my own tender emotions and the responsibilities that I carry as a mother and partner of intergenerational residential school survivors. I’m also an active member of the Presbyterian Church, a seminary student and an Indigenous guest working at TteS.
To maintain and respect these various duties sometimes feels more like a burden than a gift. Yes, remorse and apologies are necessary, but Canadians apologize a lot. Recently, I was in a meeting where a revered Elder asked, “Why would we trust an apology, especially from a Canadian?” It’s a great question. The true antidote to pain is changed behaviour and neighbourly, embodied expressions of generosity and genuine love. Routine apologies are akin to the public renaming of traditional sacred spaces, for the sole benefit of colonial settlers.
Here we meet again, six years after the completion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). We absolutely cannot deny that merciless soil is packed under some of our forbearers’ fingernails. More investigations for buried bodies will inevitably proceed. And more churches will need to be accountable to more buried children. This issue is personal to me: both the Presbyterian and United churches controlled the operations of Alberni Indian Residential School, the Vancouver Island institution that bequeathed my daughter into the legacy as a third-generation survivor.
According to the Medicine Wheel teachings, spirituality is only one quadrant of the round. A healthy expression of self — in this case, as part of the unified body of Christ — includes not only the spiritual, but also the emotional, mental and physical aspects of identity. As Christ-followers, we are aware that Jesus not only prayed, but also exercised and expressed his full-spectrum of humanness. Jesus showed up again and again. Though the Medicine Wheel is not Christian per se, it does bear weight with many Indigenous Christians like me, who use the teachings to activate our venerations, communities and ministries. We have known the Medicine Wheel our whole lives, and as righteous children of God, each one of us matters.
Injustice never lays low and will continue to circle back each season, with more potency and fortitude until justice prevails. This discovery of 215 innocent First Nations children was predicted in the TRC reports. And remember, the stories of children buried in the orchard were widely known in the community. The salt in this wound is that KIRS survivors were left to hang, their stories undermined, ridiculed and marked as false childhood memories.
The TRC Calls to Action were clear. There is no need to continue to unpack what reconciliation means to each of us personally. We — you, members of church, and of society; me, member of church, of society, and of Indigenous communities — must follow the guidelines that were laid out six years ago by law makers, professionals, survivors, church leaders and decision-makers. The better way forward for all of us will be one guided by Creator’s radiance and light that reflects everyone, including the ones we have intentionally or unintentionally sinned against.
The time to live in true fellowship is now. This is our cue to knuckle down, quit chattering and start examining the long-detailed list of unfinished businesses and promises that we have made, but not delivered.
Extending ourselves only through thoughts and prayers to the hurt, traumatized, distant and dissimilar, causes more harm than good, and undermines our service to God. I leave you to ponder these questions:
- Has your church reached out to your Indigenous members and/or local Indigenous communities to offer support and resources?
- Has your church and community talked about the discovery at KIRS and gone over what has been learned from the experience of Kamloops?
- Is your church ready to implement the relevant TRC Calls to Actions?
- Is your church preparing for the time when more unmarked graves are found in either your community and/or on a site run by your Christian denomination?
I have observed that just when I think I have a better sense of the direction in which I am heading, the Spirit reveals another gouge of brokenness. By way of ineffable Indigenous truths and testimony, the urgency for reconciliation wails in all four directions. For better or for worse, as Christians our primary identity is in our baptism and as intentional members of the Reformed tradition, we have a commitment to being reformed and reforming according to the Word of God.
Yax̣šiqimł (Natika Bock) wrote this on the traditional and unceded Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Territory. The Secwepemc maintain a spiritual and practical relationship to the land, water, air, animals, plants and all things needed for life.
Emotional support or assistance for those who are affected by the residential school system can be found at Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free 1 (800) 721-0066 or 24-hr Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419.
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